It Begins in 1970

As I continue to read Meg Jacob’s Panic At The Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s I am fascinated by the things I am learning. I was alive in 1973 — I turned six that year — and there’s not a lot I remember about the time. I was too fascinated by what remained of the space program (Skylab!) and Sesame Street, and spent a lot of time playing outside. That’s what remains in my consciousness of 1973.

But I see the beginning of our era in this. A conservative president who resorts to New Deal price controls and supply management to deal with a crisis that seems completely out of control. The makings of the oil crisis of early 1970s were already in place by 1970 — steeply increasing consumption coupled with stagnant or declining production and an increasing reliance on imported crude oil to make up the difference — when the Arab states of OPEC increased prices and then completely embargoed sales of crude oil to the United States (and the Netherlands) in October, 1973, following the US resupply of military equipment to Israel in the midst of the October War.

According to Jacobs, most Americans did not believe the crisis was real. Rather, the country was being cheated by oil companies withholding supplies in order to raise prices and reap windfall profits. Most Americans did not understand how the petroleum refining and distribution systems worked, and had no idea the US even imported any oil at all.

It didn’t help that the Nixon administration was in free fall over Watergate and the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew during the miserable and eventful October of 1973.

A worsening situation, one with no clear end in sight, stoked social antagonisms. When asked to sacrifice, many Americans responded by defending their right to maintain their lifestyle while questioning the right of others to do so. The political direction in which the energy crisis was moving the country was hard to pin down. Even as many Americans railed against the business world and expressed frustrations with the Nixon White House, liberal reforms that had generated controversy before the energy crisis now came under attack as luxuries the nation could no longer afford and should not have to. High on the list was federally backed school integration by busing, which in the early 1970s reached a peak of controversy. “Why must I avoid visiting a friend or running an errand when buses all over the country are driving children back and forth across cities?” one Tennessee housewife asked a sympathetic Nixon. Another Tennessee woman protested “this sinful practice of hauling defenseless children for miles upon miles through city streets,” a practice she blamed as a “major reason for this gaosline shortage.” (65)

A war a half-world away changed the willingness of Americans to be charitable toward each other.

But not just each other.

… For others, the energy crisis, along with the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions [inflation mostly], made the cost of American interests in Vietnam too high. “My job is in jeopardy. Why should my tax dollars be used to subsidize foreign economies when my work is being taken from me?” a North Carolina man who supported the ban [on oil shipments to Southeast Asia] wrote to the White House. Wasn’t it unfair to ask Americans to sacrifice while, as one California woman put it, “you are sending millions of barrels of oil to Cambodia and So. Vietnam? We should come first!”

As future prospects grew worse, the public became angry at government officials in Washington. If business contrived the shortage to make a profit, as many believed, the government failed to take effective action, either because of incompetence or because of some general notion of “politics.” A Harris poll revealed increasing blame for business and government, with 83 percent of the public attributing fault to oil companies and 75 percent also pointing the finger at politicians. As the shortages continued, it appeared that Washington was lacking solutions. As one young mother from Toledo put it, “Is there anyone who cares, will listen, and Do Something?” (68)

The embattled Nixon administration, peaching a gospel of the free market, acted instead by regulating oil and refined crude products even more heavily. And the burden of the restrictions imposed by both the administration and Congress, as Jacobs notes, “seemed to have consequences greater than what Americans felt they could live with.”

Which led to a series of wildcat strikes by independent, long-haul truckers, who would use the then relatively new technology of citizens band radio to coordinate massive stoppages of trucks on major interstate highways and bridges that would block traffic for hours and many tens of miles.

These truckers were some of the core members of Nixon’s — and the GOP’s — constituency. (Though Jacobs notes that Nixon wanted to build an electoral coalition independent of the GOP.) They were socially conservative, upwardly mobile in their aspirations, supported the war in Vietnam, were for law and order and against protestors, rioters, and hippies, and believed in tough government to protect their livelihoods and way of life.

In short — they were Trump voters.

These conservatives voted against welfare and busing, two programs that they felt doled out benefits from their hard-earned tax dollars to those who did not deserve them. Al Trafford, who was married, had four children, and owned a home in Westchester, New York, believed he could easily distinguish the difference between “niggers” and “colored.” The former were on welfare and did not have good jobs; the latter owned their own homes, earned a decent income, and educated their children. “When they live on my block, they’re colored,” he said. “The coloreds on my block are my friends. They’re so nice that after a while you don’t know they are colored.” (76)

Remember, while this thinking was likely never far from the surface, Trafford is quoted saying these things because of a war a half-a-world away and an embargo enacted by governments of tiny countries he had probably never heard of.

The energy crisis was more than they could take. They needed relief, and for that they turned to the government to hold down prices at the pump, give them more fuel, and get the oil companies to comply. As the journalist Harry Maurer explained, the crisis “dealt a stunning shock to the truckers’ philosophical and political framework. They believed passionately in free enterprise but they were going broke. They voted for Richard Nixon but he was ignoring them. They called themselves independent but their livelihoods clearly hinged on the Arabs, the government, the oil companies — and on each another. It was a time for a change in their thinking.” (76)

That change, however, did not mean more social solidarity. It would mean less. The political system was beginning to break, and no one in the country was up to fixing it.

As an aside, Jacobs focuses a lot on Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the hawkish liberal from Washington State who led the Democratic opposition to the Nixon administration’s handling of the energy crisis. A lot is focused today on Jackson’s hawkish proteges and their lasting influence on American foreign policy. But Jacobs notes that Jackson was angling for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976 (and he used the energy issue to batter Nixon and the GOP), and in his advocacy of rationing and price controls, Jackson may have been the last serious and committed New Dealer in Congress. It’s interesting to consider what would have happened to the United States had Jackson, and not Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, become president in 1976.